Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Celebrating St. Augustine

Tomorrow, August 28, is the feast of St. Augustine. I have long been aware of the Order of St. Augustine in the Roman Catholic church, but vague on Augustine himself. I rectified this in July by inviting Lutheran theologian and scholar Mark Allen Powell to go with me to Chalma on the other side of the ridge from Cuernavaca. Chalma is Mexico’s most visited Augustinian site.

Mark deciphered the large oil paintings documenting the life of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) that decorate the courtyard of the cloister of Chalma's sanctuary. I was fascinated to hear about Augustine's influence on contemporary western thought. Mark told us that "today you study Plato in university but for considerably more than a thousand years you never would have studied Plato in a western university because Plato was a pagan.  But you would have studied Augustine.   The reason that Plato has so much effect on the western world is because of Augustine. The filter was Plato to Ambrose (bishop of Milan attributed with Augustine's conversion to Christianity) to Augustine to the western world where Platonic philosophy has been hugely influential in how people think.  Augustine has given us a Christianized version of Plato rather than the pagan version of Plato.”

Plato believed in the immortal soul that continues to live forever even after our body dies. Our soul existed even before we had a body according to Plato. There are only so many souls in the universe and they have always existed and always will exist because souls are immortal. Mark said: "This is a little hard for Christians to grasp, but before Augustine, if you asked a Christian, 'What happens to people when they die?' the answer would have been what Paul says in the Bible:  when a person dies the body, soul, and mind are all dead. When Jesus returns he will raise the dead on Judgement Day."  Augustine said that when a person died, that person's soul goes to heaven.  "Actually it was Plato that said that. Yet almost all Christians believe it--Augustine's writings about the immortality of the soul come from Plato."

Here in Mexico Augustine is not just an historical figure. He is a saint who is celebrated all year, but especially on his saint’s day, August 28th. A particularly wonderful celebration takes place each year in a private home in Vallodolid, Yucatan. Readers of Charlie’s Digs will remember artist Wilberth Azcorra who spends most of each year in Xochitepec, Morelos where he is known for his paintings of watermelons. I described his house and studio as the Watermelon House, a combination of Macondo, Wonderland, and Oz.  As to be expected the colors in the house are red, white, and green.

Wilberth spends August and September in the historic center of Valladolid, Yucatan where he constructed a house in Yucatan's Spanish style. The colors of that house are black and white -- colors of the Augustinian Order. The house is designed to carry out the nine-day celebration for St. Augustine every August, as his family has done uninterrupted for 98 years. Wilberth houses the 16th century wooden image from Guatemala of St. Augustine of Hippo that has been passed through generations of his family.

Wilberth told me that as the youngest of nine siblings, he was put in charge of the first of the nine evenings. As siblings moved away or died Wilbert 'climbed' to higher novenas until attaining the last one. "I inherited it from my mother and have been responsible for the novenas for 17 years." 

On the last day, August 28th, the saint is taken in procession to the church for a 7 a.m. Mass followed by breakfast, and a Balche (fermented drink of prehispanic origin) ceremony in the Maya style, then dinner for over a hundred guests. "The menu is the same as the one my parents prepared.  We can't change it.  It's the dinner for the Saint -- relleno negro (a Yucatecan specialty). Everyone that arrives is welcome."

To my "is there room for that many people?" Wilberth replied, "I designed the house for this event as if it is a chapel.  The ground floor opens up completely onto a terrace and patio.  When the novena is over we move my mother's furniture back and it becomes a home again.  The saint has a room upstairs where it spends the rest of the year."

Wiberth has graciously invited readers of Charlie’s Digs who are in Yucatan to attend.
The relleno negro is going into a pit this evening in Wilberth's backyard to be cooked underground as best of Yucatecan cuisine dictates.  It will be dug up tomorrow at 11:00.  You're invited to celebrate St. Augustine at Calle 39 #196 in Valladolid.  If you go, please give Wilberth a copy of this issue of The News as you tell him "Charlie told me I'd be welcome."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

An arch of seeds

Late in the afternoon on September 7, the Virgin Mary will leave her niche in the altar of the Nativity of Jesus church in Tepoztlan, Morelos and go out into the market to buy flowers.  When she returns to the church she’ll encounter the gift the market’s shopkeepers have been working on for her since July.

Tepoztlan’s market vendors will be offering the Virgin Mary their twentieth mosaic triumphal arch.  It, like its predecessors, will be left on display for 10 months. Then it will be removed and destroyed or cut into sections.

Triumphal arches are a tradition introduced to Mexico by Spaniards in the 16th century.  Rather than comemorate a triumph in battle, they are used to honor or welcome a distingushed civil, military, or religious authority.

In the late 17th century Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz designed what may be the most reknowned of such arches in Mexico.  She was commissioned to design an arch for the western entrance to Mexico City’s cathedral to welcome Viceroy Marquis de la Laguna and the vicereine.  This was not an arch meant to be walked through hurriedly. It was meant to be admired, studied, and understood. A pamphlet accompanied it. The viceroy and vicereine saw lagoons and nautical content which they understood as alluding to them. They were so impressed they asked to meet the artist who had designed their arch and were  surprised to learn she was a cloistered nun who could not even be present for the occasion.  Sor Juana later became a close friend of the vicereine.

More recently when Raul Vera made his entry into San Cristobal de las Casas in 1995 as bishop he rode and walked under floral arches offered to him by each of the parishes in the diocese. 

In the Mexican tradition, the arches are temporary and removed shortly after the occasion for which they were designed. 

What sets Tepotzlan’s arch apart is how it is constructed. It is an intricate mosaic though not made of traditional tile. Rather it is decorated with close to a hundred varieties of seeds, grains, and beans glued to a particle-board backing. The whole thing is attached to a metal frame the shape of the arched entrance to the courtyard of the church.

Each year the design and story on the arch is different.  Tepoztlan artist and architect Arturo de Meza presents his project to the mayordomos of Tepoztlan for their approval.  They sometimes have had him make changes in the content but for the most part it is approved as he presents it.

The mosaic is assembled by volunteers, assigned to various tasks according to their abilities. Supervisor Rafael Carrillo didn't show me the full sketch, but he led me to think that this year’s arch will be of the traditional legend of the Tepozteco. In previous years the arch has shown parallel stories with prehispanic scenes on one side and Christian scenes on the other -- much like Italian Rennaisance parallels between Old and New Testament stories on opposite sides of a church sanctuary walls.

Last week I watched volunteers of all ages working on different parts of the arch glueing on the seeds and beans and grain. Others were extracting seeds from pods. Some were slicing individual beans to go where they were designated. Mr Carrillo says the quality improves every year as the volunteers aquire expertise in the technique. 

I also got to see the 16th century arch that is covered for most of the year by the Portal de Semillas (Seed Gate). It has on it a symbol-- a 30 centimeter (12 inch) circle portraying a Christian cross on top of a human skull.  It is a symbol frequently found in Mexican 16th century church architecture.  When I’m asked about it while visiting other churches I have three possible answers.  Is it Jesus’ cross on the hill called Golgotha, which means skull?  Or a portrayal of the victory of life over death? Or is it the graphic portrayal of Jesus’ blood dripping from the cross through a crack in the ground and landing on Adam’s skull as I read about in the Church of the Holy Sepulchure in Jerusalem?

This symbol will be covered back up on September 7th. That day, around 5:00 p.m., the Virgin Mary will leave Tepoztlan’s churchyard and go into the market.  She’ll go to buy flowers, which of course no vendor will sell her. They will always give them to her. When she returns the 450 year old cross and skull will be covered with a beautiful, brightly colored mosaic carefully and lovingly made by people of Tepotzlan from their harvest of seeds and beans.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Wwoofing for a summer job

Many high school and college students from the U.S. come through my language school in Cuernavaca. They talk about many things, but one thing I realize they don’t talk about much is having a summer job. Back when I was in college in California we all had summer jobs. Not so these days. What’s changed?

Migration from third world countries to first world countries is part of the answer.  Many jobs that used to be filled seasonally by high school and college students are now filled year round by immigrants. Often these immigrants have professional skills acquired in their home countries that they can’t put to use in their new country. In effect, employers have overqualified people working at a bargain price.

I think another part of the answer is that these young adults know what admission officers in college are looking for. How many times have high school students been told by their elders that they should do something because “it will look good on your college application”?  This is reinforced by service-learning classes in high schools and universities. So the question becomes how to fill your summer vacation time doing something interesting and meaningful without going into debt?

I found out about a clever opportunity here in Mexico and around the world when I met Jeremy Bollin. Digs Collaborator Carol Hopkins had met Jeremy while walking Spain’s Camino a Santiago de Compostela.  Jeremy expressed his frustration at not knowing Spanish and Carol offered him the opportunity to live in her Cuernavaca B&B while studying Spanish at the Cemanahuac Educational Community.  In exchange for his tuition he worked with me several hours a day on projects within the school.

You see Jeremy is a “Wwoofer”. He’s a member of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which according to its mission statement is “a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange,  thereby helping to building a sustainable global community.”

WWOOF is found in 99 countries including Mexico and provides an opportunity to live in local environments usually without cost other than transportation to get there.  In exchange for an average of 5 hours a day of work, 5-6 days a week, the host provides room and board. Before coming to Mexico Jeremy Wwoofed in California. After leaving Cuernavaca he Wwoofed in Quintana Roo and Jalisco.  He looks forward to Wwoofing soon in Australia.

WWOOF was founded in Great Britain as an opportunity for urban folk to get into the countryside and to help popularize organic food.  WWOOF originally stood for Working Weekends on Organic Farms.  The organization evolved into the international Willing Workers on Organic Farms.  In some countries this caused problems with local laborers fearing volunteers were thinly disguised migrant workers threatening their jobs. While the acronym remained the same, the name evolved again.

Each nation has it’s own separate WWOOF affiliation.  Participants in Mexico’s WWOOF pay $20 for a year’s membership.  Currently there are 4000 members in Mexico and 50 hosts or farms. In the U.S. there are currently 1685 farms.

Wwoofers in Mexico may do anything from planting corn to teaching surfing.  At Jeremy’s Jalisco WWOOF farm he built and slept in “igloos” constructed from sustainable materials:  mud, sticks, sand bags, and donkey dung. Photos of these “igloos” strongly resemble a Mesoamerican temascal.  He also helped build and demonstrate dry toilets.

I found out that there are multiple “farms” near me in the Mexico City, Cuernavaca, and Tepoztlan area. Within 50 kilometers of the D.F. there is opportunity to learn permaculture, organic farming, use of medicinal herbs, and dry toilet construction. The only thing these “farms” seem to have in common is environmental sustainability and a philosophy of care for the earth.  One Tepoztlan farm is part of an orphanage and raises the food for the children. Viewing the Mexico WWOOF website with Jeremy was an adventure in itself.

Some WWOOF locations provide relatively luxurious accommodations.  Jeremy served at a hotel facility on the Island of Holbox, Quintana Roo where he was housed in a room with an ocean view and took his meals in the hotel restaurant!  Most farms suggest bringing a sleeping bag.  Some even require a tent.

Jeremy told me that upon finishing junior college in Washington he decided to work and travel before taking on debt to obtain a degree when he wasn’t sure yet “what I want to do when I grow up.”  After the experiences he’s had this year -- from the Camino a Santiago to Cemanahuac to wwoofing-- he’s accumulated lots of experience, skills, and information to help him make that decision but, understandably, he’s still not in any hurry.  It seems like a wonderful alternative life path. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lakes gone, causeways remain

I marvel at the ways the ancient lakes of the Valley of Mexico play a role in contemporary life in Mexico City. 

At first glance at a map of the Valley of Mexico as it was in 1519, the year the Spanish conquerors arrived, reveals only one large, irregularly-shaped lake. But look closer and you’ll see six parts to it, each with its own name. That’s why it is proper to refer to them in plural, as the lakes of the Valley of Mexico.

Politically the most important of the six lakes was the Lake of Mexico. In the center of that lake lay the island of Tenochtitlan -- presently Mexico City's Historical Center.  It was there that Aztec priests saw an eagle perched on a cactus eating a serpent. They had been on the lookout for that sign, which their gods said would indicate where they should settle, since leaving their homeland in Aztlan in the thirteenth century. That sign is now on the shield of Mexico.

The Aztecs saw that sign in June of 1325 after fleeing from the area known as Culhuacan, near where the Taxqueña metro station is today. At that time Tenochtitlan was a swampy, snake-infested and difficult to access island. The Aztecs had little choice of where to settle and fewer friends. By 1325 no chieftain in the Valley of Mexico wanted to have anything to do with the Aztecs.  They were known as a powerful fighting force that won just about every battle they participated in. But they turned sides quickly. It all depended on who paid them the most.

With time and ingenuity the Aztecs solved the swampiness problem on Tenochtitlan by adding soil from the shore. They solved the snake infestation problem by acquiring a taste for them. This was so successful that they had to start importing them. They made the island more accessible by building earthen levy-type causeways to connect the island to the shore. Aztecs built dikes both for flood control and to regulate the salinity of the lakes to make them good for agriculture.  The lakes with the freshest water were used for "chinampa" farming. Instead of taking water to the fields as in contemporary irrigation, they took the fields to the water and built islands in the shallow lakes. 

Lake Texcoco, the largest of the six lakes, occupied the lowest elevation in the valley and hence was the saltiest.  Its salinity made it ideal for the production of spirulina, the topic of last week’s Charlie's Digs.  

Though all six lakes have mostly disappeared, Lake Texcoco still maintains a significant presence.  During take-off from the Benito Juarez airport look at the green and marshy area to the east and you’ll see the remnants of Lake Texcoco. Thankfully urban sprawl can't encroach on it because buildings would quickly sink into its very soft soil.

The lakes still determine how we travel through the Valley of Mexico.  Highways circle Lake Texcoco, and a toll road shoots right across Lake Texcoco from the aiport to the city of Texcoco.  My favorite way to return from Teotihuacan to Mexico City is on the toll road inaugurated within the last six years that skirts right along the northwestern shore of Lake Texcoco. You’ll see the wetlands of Lake Texcoco on the east side of the highway. An evening drive allows a view of the dark ancient lake and the city of Texcoco 15 kilometers away on the other side. 

Several of Mexico City's present-day thoroughfares follow the causeways the Aztecs built connecting the island of Tenochtitlan to the shores of the Lake of Mexico.  Of these, Viaducto Tlalpan is the most heavily traveled.  Though much wider now, it is the route Hernan Cortez chose when he entered Tenochtitlan for the first time in 1519. Two more Aztec causeways are under Avenida Hidalgo going west from the island of Tenochtitlan and under Calzada de los Misterios connecting Tlatelolco and the Basilica of Guadalupe. They all share the characteristic of being almost perfectly straight.  Understandable since they were originally built as earthen causeways crossing lakes. They were probably not even as wide as a lane of traffic today.

The ancient lakes also determine the route of Mexico City's grandest exspressway -- the Periferico.  It skirts along the southern and western shores of several of the lakes.  Last month I experienced driving on the Periferico's upper level for the first time.  Being an urban toll road it is touted as being lightly traveled; I now drive it every chance I get for its spectacular views of the innate beauty of this marvelous city.  Colonial church domes seem within arm's reach.  Long horizontal views of treetops are punctuated by Mexico's stunning high-rise architecture. Very different from aerial views in which we are looking down.  I like the views the best on the northbound drive.  That would have been the lake view when the lakes were visible -- surreal, tranquil views of this bustling crowded city.